Spotlight on Marge Ainsley, Freelance Cultural Consultant

Marge Ainsley

Marge Ainsley (English Language with Art History, 2000, Bowland) tells of her time at Lancaster and subsequent freelance career as a cultural consultant.

Standing in front of the perfectly preserved ancient Egyptian coffin lid belonging to a mummy dating back around 3,500 years, Marge Ainsley found she was pinching herself to prove to herself that this magic moment was really part of her job.

Reflecting on this memory at The Atkinson, Southport, where she provided arts consultancy support, Ainsley says: "It's a real privilege to get behind the scenes. I have to remind myself how fortunate I am to have backstage access to collections and conservation care in action."

Her work as a freelance cultural consultant involves her developing deep understandings of arts organisations up and down the country to help them evaluate what they do, and ultimately to increase the numbers of people benefitting from those cultural offerings. At the time of writing, she was busy on a major evaluation for Carnegie UK involving 14 library services, which began in 2019 overlapping into the period of Covid challenges.

The main bulk of her time is spent with museums, libraries, archives and galleries, ranging in size and complexity from small literary museums such as Shandy Hall, near York (home of the writer Rev Laurence Sterne) to the enormous Manchester International Festival. “I do anything from independent evaluations to devising audience development strategies for organisations,” she explains.

Brought up in rural Lancashire and a pupil at Blackpool Sixth Form College, she knew from the outset that she wanted a career in the cultural sector, but had no idea how to go about it. She chose to go to nearby Lancaster University to study English Language and Linguistics because of its reputation as a high-flying department, but found that her first year choice of Cultural Communication allowed her to do Art History as well.

“Lancaster set me up for a career, even though I was not necessarily directly using the content I learned at university,” she says. “It encourages you to be independent, make your own decisions, and be accountable. You can work out who you are and what you want to be. It really sets you up.”

"She was excited to leave home and was given accommodation on the all-female corridor in Bowland Annexe, part of Bowland College. With rather basic facilities at the time, she soon realised however that its position, overlooking Alexandra Square, gave unparalleled opportunities for people watching, and she also made friends for life.

Academically she thrived on the opportunities to explore language in every sense, from analysing grammar and syntax, studying children's literacy and exploring the copywriting of advertising. These are skills that support her current work, especially with content marketing, report writing, and copywriting leaflets and online materials for different audiences.

She also learned to swear fluently - but only in the manner current in 17th and 18th-century England - as she wrote her dissertation on it at Lancaster: “A lot of the words are the same,” she laughs. “But the etymology is so fascinating - why these words are so bad and how they have changed over time.” She points out that her studies did not make swearing a habit.

Despite her social nature, Marge did not join student societies, although she socialised with friends on her corridor and on her course, often at the Sugar House and university bars. Much of her time outside her studies was taken up working at Boots in Lancaster and Blackpool to supplement her student loan.

Her Lancaster days were very happy ones, and she is still in touch with the English Language department today, as there have been various projects with her cultural clients which have drawn upon expertise in the department. She has particularly fond memories of lectures with Gerry Knowles, Jonathan Culpeper, Mick Short, Tony McEnery and David Barton.

Marge’s post-university path was not easy as a Master's qualification was needed to gain entry into the cultural sector at that time. She stayed on in Lancaster for a year with university friends and worked for a financial call centre in Preston. She then secured a graduate job with Cadbury’s in Sheffield as a regional business executive – very much a stop gap, but one which gave her ‘real life’ skills including negotiating and experience of working on high profile events including the Manchester Commonwealth Games in 2002.

Her heart was set on working in the cultural sector, so she left Cadbury’s to study an MA in Arts and Heritage Management at the University of Sheffield. She worked as a volunteer at Sheffield Galleries and was fortunate to gain a marketing assistant position there towards the end of her course. She spent the following years working in various in-house marketing roles before going freelance in 2008.

“The huge joy I get now from freelancing is working with teams who do not have marketing or evaluation experience and helping them get people through the doors,” she explains. “It’s a pleasure to be able to work with so many different types of organisation by training their staff and volunteers.”

She used to travel all over the UK - including Orkney for the Scottish Book Trust - but since Covid her work is much nearer home. “One of the most interesting parts of my job is hearing the views of people who have experienced culture for the first time and how it’s changed their lives. It reminds you why we work in the sector.”

Post Covid, a lot of work is required to help in the recovery of the cultural sector. She says: ‘The pandemic demonstrated to the powers that be that people value the arts and it can have a powerful, positive impact on health and well-being.”

Back to News